Choke Hold: The Fossil Fuel Industry’s Fight against Climate Policy, Science and Clean Energy

Choke Hold: The Fossil Fuel Industry's Fight against Climate Policy, Science and Clean Energy

Journalists have long written about the inordinate power of the fossil fuel industry over energy policy—its ability to get its way in legislation, regulation, elections and courtrooms. This work shows the “how” of this familiar theme: how industry operates with collective force and efficiency across society; how ordinary Americans who are in the way are left to suffer with little or no recourse; and, perhaps most importantly, how industry has thwarted the ability of our democracy to respond to the climate crisis. Choke Hold is a comprehensive explanatory account of all these things.

L.J. Turner is a rancher in Wyoming who lost the freshwater his grandfather bequeathed him to the strip mines of the big coal companies in the Powder River Basin. Bryan Latkanich can’t drink his well water anymore, and he is sure the fracking rigs he allowed on his property in rural Pennsylvania are to blame. Diane Eckhardt, a peach farmer in central Texas, has watched her crop fail in the warming climate, and her congressman denies the problem even exists.

And then there’s Bethel Brock, a coal miner from Virginia, who had to fight against company doctors and lawyers for 14 years to get the black lung benefits he was due under federal law. He needed the help of our reporting to secure them.

L.J., Bryan, Diane and Bethel don’t know each other, but they have all had their lives upended by the same force. They help us tell a series of large and complicated stories in simple, human terms. 

In one story, we traced the path of climate misinformation from the 1950s to the Oval Office today, how it was passed, like a baton, over decades. We came to the conclusion that it’s one of the longest and most expensive campaigns ever waged by industry against science in modern history. We created a narrative graphic to tell the story. One expert on climate denial said, “Your piece is now on the required reading list for all my staff.” Another climate expert emailed us to say, “This has to be one of the best articles ever written on the subject.”

In another story our reporting revealed for the first time how the U.S. government hid fracking’s risk to drinking water in 2004, handing industry broad exemptions from environmental regulations. The consequences of the regulatory loopholes built on censored science have rippled through the country ever since, and landed on Bryan Latkanich’s property. He can’t drink his well water anymore. He blames fracking. He has little recourse. Now we know why.

In L.J. Turner’s case in Wyoming, it’s the subsidies that are to blame for coal’s rapid expansion near the ranch his grandfather started. The bottom has fallen out of the water table and sometimes his cattle die of thirst.

We followed this method—explaining a macro story and showing its micro effects—and created a mosaic that tells a bigger story, too: how the industry’s choke hold has encouraged the unchecked acceleration of climate change and left the world with little breathing room to avoid catastrophic impacts.